Social Constructivists' Approach to Classroom Discipline

From WikEd

Table of contents

Descriptions, Definitions, Synonyms, Organizer Terms, Types of

1. What is Constructivism?

Constructivism has multiple roots in the psychology and philosophy of this century: the developmental perspective of Jean Piaget, the emergence of cognitive pyschology under the guidance of such figures as Jerome Bruner and Ulric Neisser, the constructivist perspective of philosophers such as Nelson Goodman (Perkins, 1992, p. 49). Based on the work of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, it is having major ramifications for the goals teachers set fot the learners with whom they work, the instructional strategies teachers employ in working toward these goals, and the methods of assessment used by school personnel to document genuine learning (Fosnot, 1996, p. 8). Central to the vision of constructivism is the notion of the organism as "active"-not just responding to stimuli, as in the behaviorist rubric, but engaging, grapplng, and seeking to make sense of things. In particular, learners do not just take in and store up given information. They make tentative interpretations of experience and go on to elaborate and test those interpretations. Students' mental structures are formed, elaborated, and tested, until a satisfactory structure emerges (Perkins, 1992, p. 49). Implied in all is the idea that we as human beings have no access to an objective reality since we are constructing our version of it, while at the same time transforming it and ourselves (Fosnot, 1996, p. 23).

2. What is Social Constructivism?

Social constructivism was developed by post-revolutionary Soviet psychologist, Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky was a cognitivist, but rejected the assumption made by cognitivists such as Piaget and Perry that it was possible to separate learning from its social context. (retrieved May 07, 2005, from Teaching & Resource Center ( Vygotsky sought to study dialogue while Piaget sought to study and illuminate the role of contradiction and equilibration in learning. Vygotsky was interested not only in the role of inner speech on the learning of concepts, but also on the role of the adult and the learners' peers as they conversed, questioned, explained, and negotiated meaning (Fosnot, 1996, p. 20). Among two trends in constructivist-based education research, a dispute over both whether the mind is located in the head or in the individual-in-social-action, and whether learning is primarily a process of active cognitive reorganization or a process of enculturation into a community of practice. Sociocultural theorists typically link activity to participation in culturally organized practices, whereas cognitive theorists give priority to individual stduent's sensory-motor and conceptual activity (Minick, as cited in Cobb, 1996, pp. 35-36). Social constructivism is related with postmodernism and poststructuralism.

3. Implications on Clasroom Teaching, Management, and Discipline

If learning has constructive character inherently, it follows that teaching practices need to be supportive of the construction that must occur (Perkins, 1992, p. 49).

Teaching strategies using social constructivism as a referent include teaching in contexts that might be personally meaningful to students, negotiating taken-as-shared meanings with students, class discussion, small-group collaboration, and valuing meaningful activity over correct answers (Wood et al, 1995). Emphasis is growing on the teacher's use of multiple epistemologies, to maintain dialectic tension between teacher guidance and student-initiated exploration, as well as between social learning and individual learning. Constructivism-related strategies such as these are starting to be used more often in science and mathematics classrooms, but perhaps not surprisingly, have been common for a longer time in humanities subjects like social studies and communication (retrieved May 08, 2005, from A journey into Constructivism ( For constructivists, learning is not the result of development; learning is development (Fosnot, 1996, p.29).

The raison d’être of discipline or classroom management is almost always to secure children’s compliance with adults’ demands. Thus, it is assumed, teachers have a responsibility to get and maintain control of their classrooms. In doing so, they are encouraged to focus on students’ behaviors and attempt to alter those that they, for whatever reason, deem inappropriate. Behavioral changes, in turn, are usually achieved by resorting to one of another extrinsic inducement, which is to say, some sort of reward or punishment. It is in most respects a teacher-directed model, one in which expectations, rules, and consequences are imposed on students. What we need as teachers is to move beyond discipline or management. We need alternatives to the conventional goals and methods of discipline. How-to guides or easy-to-follow recipes are fundamentally insulting to teachers, not unlike attempts to design a “teacher-proof” curriculum. The alternative is neither a recipe nor a different technique for getting mindless compliance. It requires that we transform the classroom, give up some power, and reconsider the way we define and think about misbehavior. Our first question should be “What do children need?”-followed immediately by “How can we meet those needs?”(Kohn, 1996, pp. xii-xv)

4. Social Constructivist Alfie Kohn's Critique of Classroom Dsicipline Models

Criticism of Jones' Positive Discipline Model (Kohn, as cited in Wofgang, 2002, p. 82)

They are short-term fixes, instruments of control intended, at best, to stop bad behavior rather than affrimatively help children to become good people. Even older children may act in troubling ways because they are wanting for the sort of warm, caring relationships that enable and incline people to act more compassionately. They may have learned to rely on power rather than reason, to exhibit aggression rather than compassion, because this is what they have seen adults do-and perhaps what has been done to them. Jones clearly insists that teacher grab control of the classroom the first day and first minutes of the school year.

Criticism of Assertive Discipline Model (Kohn, as cited in Wolfgang, 2001, pp. 100-101)

(On teacher-imposed rules) If the goal is to help students grow into compassionate, principled people, then having students "define the real meaning" of rules is the best way-perhaps the only way-that a list of rule prepared by the teacher can help students become thoughtful decision makers.

(On saying "you have chosen to break a rule") Adults who blithely insist that children choose to misbehave are rather like politicians who declare that people have only themselves to blame for being poor. In both cases, potentially relevant factors other than personal responsibility are ignored.

(On punishment) Punishment must be deliberately chosen to be unpleasant. A punishment makes somebody suffer in order to teach a lesson.

(On rewards) Rewards, like punishment, can only manipulate someone's actions. They do nothing to help a child become a kind or caring person.

(On praise) The message of praise is: I approve of what you did, so you should do it again. It is a way of reinforcing the act. It is nothing less than assisting children in constructing an image of themselves as decent people. Things get even worse when such comments are offered in front of others. Here the teacher has taken rewards, which are bad enough, and added to them the poison of competition. Over time, singling children out like this works against any sense of community in the classroom. The teacher is pretending to speak to one child, but is actually using her, holding her up as an example in an attempt to manipulate everyone in the room.

Criticism on Dreikurs (Kohn, as cited in Wolfgang, 2001, pp. 137-138)

(On Logical Consequences) The most widely cited distinction between punishments and logical consequences is that the latter are related to what the child did wrong. By definition, a “consequence” fits the crime. To contrive some sort of conceptual link between the punishment and the crime may be satisfying to the adult, but in most cases it probably makes very little difference to the child. The child’s (understandable) anger and desire to retaliate come from the fact that someone is deliberately making her suffer. The issue here is not the specific feature of the coercive action so much as the coercion itself.

(On class meeting, democracy, and compliance) Discussion sessions would be used strategically by teachers to “induce compliance.” Dreikurs is decidedly not talking about offering students a genuine opportunity to participate in decision making. What counts is that the teacher has never given up any real control. What matters is that the goal is not learning: it is obedience.

Application in Classrooms and Similiar Settings

1. Alfie Kohn's Suggestion on Classroom Management

Alfie Kohn’s position

Kohn’s basic position is Relationship-Listening position based on humanistic position. From his view, basic problems which results in students’ misbehavior are the compliance curriculum and discipline and management procedures. According to Kohn, if we have an engaging curriculum where students are involved and interested in learning how to get along and work with others, we would have little to no discipline problems in our classroom. He suggests “constructivist model” is the only instructional models acceptable. Human interaction and problem solving is too dynamic and complex to create a model of discipline that would only become a recipe and narrow the thinking and creativity of the teacher. "Constructivist" model of learning challenges the central metaphors that so often drive instruction in that it regards children as active meaning makers (Wolfgang, 2001, pp. 229-231).

Some basic ideas of Kohn

Children misbehave when their basic needs have not been met. Misbehavior will diminish when children feel less controlled. Kids tend to be more respectful when their need to make decisions is respected; they are likely to be better behaved when there is no need for them to struggle to assert their autonomy (Kohn, 1996, p. 81). Another reason to let students choose is to help each of them become self-disciplined (Kohn, 1996, p. 83).

Class Meeting is the place for sharing, deciding, planning, reflecting (Kohn, 1996, p. 88).

Classroom or school is a "community," a place in which students feel cared about and are encouraged to care about each other. They experience a sense of being valued and respected; the children matter to one another and to the teacher (kohn, 1996, p. 103) The community approach goes beyond teacher-student interaction and askes us to consider the broader question of how everyone gets along together. We have to transform not just individuals but educational structures (Kohn, 1996, p. 105).

There is not "an alternative" to traditional discipline. The number of alternatives is unlimited- though all the legitimate ones can be classified as ways of solving problems and teaching (kohn, 1996, p. 122).

Discipline and Management Guidelines of Kohn (Kohn, 1996, pp. 122-128)

i) Relationship: No problem-solving strategy, regardless of how clever or well-meaning it may be, can take the place of that experience of being accepted.

ii) Skills: The teacher may need to help students learn to listen carefully, calm themselves, generate suggestions, imagine someone else’s point of view, and so on.

iii) Diagnose: Punishment and rewards are unproductive in part because they ignore the underlying reasons for a given behavior. If you have a relationship with a child built on trust and respect, you can gently ask her to speculate about…

iv) Questions about our own practices: To figure out what is really going on, we must be willing to look beyond the concrete situation in front of us by asking “Can we help?”

v) Maximize student involvement: Fewer problems are likely to occur in such an environment where students play roles in making decisions. When problems happen, it is just as critical that we maximize student involvement in deciding how to resolve them.

vi) Construct an authentic solution: The questions we ask students must be open-ended, with students encouraged to explore possibilities, reflect on their own motives, disagree, and, in general, to construct an authentic solution.

vii) Make restitution: A reasonable follow-up to a destructive action may be to try to restore, replace, repair, or apologize, as the situation may dictate.

viii) Check back later: to see how a plan worked, whether the problem got solved, whether additional or entirely new strategies may now be needed.

ix) Flexibility

x) Minimize the punitive impact: When no alternative to a “doing to” intervention comes to mind and when one feels compelled to rely on control, everything possible should be done to minimize the punitive impact of such a move. The teacher’s tone should be warm and regretful, and she should express confidence that the two of them can eventually solve the problem together.

2. Goal, Action, Outcome Model of Social Information-Processing. (retrieved May 07, 2005, from Glossary (

Stage 1 - In the classroom, one of the teacher's main roles is to set the conditions, or context, of a task and to formulate the student's goals.

Stage 2 - The Encoding and Interpretation of cues related to what is going on around them. Students focus their receptors on particular cues, encode them (transfer information about these cues from the external world into memory), and interpret them based on what they already know about their limited, but complex, segment of the environment. This complex series of cognitive activity is what we refer to as "constructing meaning by processing information.”Most classroom management and discipline issues are related to procedural knowledge, that is, when and what should a teacher (or student) do under various conditions. Because each student has a history of what and when they did particular things under certain conditions, an encoding and interpretation of a new situation is always understood in comparison to his or her history. An integral part of interpretation is a complex cognitive activity in which students retrieve a part of their knowledge and then project into the future the consequences of the current situation.

Stage 3 - Clarifying Goals. Goals are focused, arousal states that function as orientations toward producing particular outcomes. For social situations, goals may include internal as well as external states or outcomes (Crick & Dodge, 1994). Students bring goals to virtually every situation and based on their interpretation of it. Determining and understanding the goals which underpin the actions of students are often the toughest parts of designing a discipline and classroom management plan.

Stage 4 - After a goal is selected, a student can imagine the outcomes of implementing that goal.

Stage 5 - Accessing and constructing Action. The goals clarified in Stage 3 are instrumental in accessing long term memory to locate or construct a response. The students, then, or at some time during this stage, evaluate the consequences of the responses. As a consequence of this stage, a response is selected and an action taken that results in a new outcome/situation.

Stage 6 - Actions. The results of the accessing and evaluation in Stage 5 come to fruition in this stage.

Stage 7 - Match. In the Match stage, students compare their desired outcome with their actual outcome.

3. The Relationship of The Social Information Model to Classroom Management and Discipline (retrieved May 07, 2005, from Glossary (

This model opens up the possibility of teachers and students working together in productive ways to help each other understand and modify the actions of each other. It enables the teacher to help the student get "inside his/her head" in a salient, tasteful way that may bring interesting results to the student. Remember that if the teacher is rather tightly bound to a behaviorist explanation of student actions, about all that she can manipulate are the stimulus situation and the reinforcement schedules. With a social information processing model, the teacher might use a litany of questions to help herself and the student understand why the student was acting this way.

Related to the context - What did you understand me to say? What do you think the assignment is?

Related to goals - What are you trying to do? Are there other things that you are trying to do at the same time? Please tell me what your goal is? Have you got some other goals in mind?

Related to Actions - Explain to me what you are doing right now? Are there some other actions that might be more appropriate? Can you think of some better ways of doing that? Tell me what you have been doing for the past 5 minutes. Would you like to ask someone else for some ideas about what to do?

Related to Outcomes - Describe how far you got on the project? How is what you have been doing related to your goals? Is this a different result than you've gotten before?

Related to Desired outcomes - How much of the project did you plan to get done today? How many problems do you typically complete in one day when working on similar projects?

Related to Matching - Why did you decide to stop/keep on doing that? What goals did you have in mind when you decided to stop/keep on? Have you ever made that choice before? How did it work out? What are some choices that you could have made?

Thus, it should be clear that there are many "causes" that can explain why a student acts as he does. In many cases the student does not even understand or is aware of some of these possibilities, but an insightful teacher using a litany of questions as described above can help uncover some of these causes. Often, when the "cause" is uncovered and the student becomes aware of it, better decisions can be made and more appropriate actions are often the result.

Evidence of Effectiveness

Critics and Their Rationale

(Retrieved May 09, 2005, from ERIC Digest (

A final challenge faced by educators is the pitfall of regarding constructivism as the only viable theoretical framework for teaching and learning. It is one way of thinking about how knowledge and understanding are formed, but it is not the only way. Nor are various interpretations of constructivism necessarily incompatible with one another (MacKinnon & Scarff-Seatter, 1997; Oldfather, Bonds, & Bray, 1994). Prospective teachers should be exposed to varying perspectives and given opportunities to develop the discretion needed to choose most appropriately and the skills to implement their choices.

Alternative Explanations due to Diversity Considerations

Signed "Life Experiences", Testimonies and Stories

References and Other Links of Interest

Cobb, P. (1996). Where is the mind? A coordination of sociocultural and cognitive constructivist perspectives. In C. T. Fosnot (Ed.) Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practice (pp. 34-52). New York: Teachers College Press

Fosnot, C. T. (1996). Constructivism: A psychological theory of learning. In C. T. Fosnot (Ed.) Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practice (pp. 8-33). New York: Teachers College Press.

Kohn, A. (1996). Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community. Alexandria, VA: ASCD(Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development),

Perkins, D. N. (1992). Technology meets constructivism: Do they make a marriage? In T. M. Duffy & D. H. Jonassen (Eds.) Constructivism and the technology of instruction: A conversation (pp. 45-55)

Wolfgang, C. H. (2001). Solving Discipline and Classroom Management Problems: Methods and Models for Today's Teachers (5th ed.). John Wiley & Sons, INC.

Go A journey into Constructivism (